Contributed by Kris Rustic, Host of Obscure Anomalies Podcast
Have you ever been walking home alone, late at night? The streets are empty and there is not a soul in sight. Then, you get that feeling, like you are being watched. You get nervous and turn around but see nothing, so you laugh it off. You begin to walk again, but as you round the next corner you swear you heard footsteps behind you. So you pick up your pace a little and notice the footsteps do the same. You stop and peek over your shoulder but you don’t see anything.
You say to yourself, “Am I going crazy?” You shake off that feeling. And continue to walk again, but so does the sound of the footsteps behind you. You had enough. You stop, turn around, and shout, “Hahaha, real funny, can you leave me alone now?” No response. You’re close to home, you figure you will just walk the rest of the way, make it quick. You walk and you do not hear the footsteps. Thank god, you say to yourself. No sooner, you hear them again! You decide to sprint, but the footsteps behind you match your speed. They keep getting closer, and closer, and closer and closer until they are finally right on top of you.
If we were in a horror story, you would most likely have been killed by now. Luckily for you, what we just encountered was none other than one of Japan’s favorite Yokai, Betobeto-San.
WHAT IS THE BETOBETO-SAN?
In Japanese, the word “Beto Beto” has a few different meanings. Japan is big on homophones, or two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spellings. Think Son as in a child and Sun as in the star the Earth orbits.. In many cases, we have the kanji (the system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters) to help give clues as to the meanings of words.
In the case of “Beto Beto” we do not have this luxury. Beto Beto is written in hiragana (a phonetic lettering system literally meaning “ordinary” or “simple”). Because of this there have been a few mistranslations along the way. One of the most common meanings of “Beto Beto” is “Sticky”, at least this is what you will find in most dictionaries. This has lead to Betobeto-san being translated as “Mr. Sticky”. However, “Beto Beto” has another meaning revolving around the formation of a word from a sound, otherwise known as Onomatopoeia. The sound in question is the sound of a Geta, a kind of sandal with an elevated wooden base held onto the foot with a fabric thong to keep the foot well above the ground. The Geta makes a sort clacking sound resembling “Beto Beto Beto”. Using more of a common sense approach, this has lead to a more accurate translation of Mr. Footsteps.
But I guess talking about where the name Betobeto-san comes from does not really tell us what a Betobeto-san is. Betobeto-san is Yokai. What is a Yokai you ask? In short, Yokai are a class of Supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons. More importantly, yokai are the personifications of supernatural or unaccountable phenomena that we cannot comprehend or understand. Yokai can range diversely from the malevolent too mischievous, from bringers of bad luck to bringers of good fortune.
For most of its life, Betobeto-san was only an aural yokai, meaning it was related to the sense of hearing only. During this time, betobeto-san was just a formless spector and was only recognizable by the telltale sound it made as it followed behind it’s victim.
Betobeto-san is said to synchronize its pace with walkers, following them as long as it can, getting closer with each step. This can be quite traumatic for victims. Imagine walking late at night, hearing the haunting sound of footsteps that follow everywhere you go, but when you turn around, nothing is there. But while the situation seems scary, the Betobeto-san is harmless.
Truthfully the Betobeto-san is just looking for a walking companion. But if you want to get rid of the Betobeto-san it is as easy as stepping to the side and saying, “Betobeto-san, Osakini Okoshi” which translates to “Please Betobeto-san, you go first” or you can say “After you Betobeto-san”. Once you step to the side and say the phrase, you will hear the betobeto-san’s footsteps carry on ahead of you, eventually vanishing out of site.
THE REFUSING BETOBETO-SAN
There is one story about a refusing Betobeto-san. I had a hard time tracing the origin and finding the exact story, but that is how it goes with a lot of legends. The story goes:
A man carrying a lantern was walking down a dark street when he heard the unmistakable sounds of the Betobeto-san behind him. The man, knowing his yokai lore, stepped aside and said “After you, Betobeto-san.” To his surprise, he heard an answer from behind. The Betobeto-san told him, “I can’t go ahead. It’s too dark.” The man then generously offered the Betobeto-san the lantern he was carrying, and was even more surprised to hear a “Thank you” in reply.
The man then watched his lantern go bobbing down the street in front of him, held by invisible hands. The man made it back to his house in the dark, and found his lantern the following morning.
MIZUKI SHIGERU AND THE BETOBETO-SAN TODAY
Betobeto-san was one of the yokai Mizuki Shigeru encountered as a young boy when his caretaker and friend Nonnonba taught him the chant that lets the Betobeto-san walk by. When he was older, Mizuki Shigeru would include Betobeto-san in his comics, becoming the first one to give the yokai an actual physical appearance. In all prior accounts, Betobeto-san was nothing more than the sound of footsteps. Mizuki went a step further and imagined what the footsteps might be actually attached to. Thus the round yokai with the large friendly smile was born.
Before Mizuki Shigeru’s comics, Betobeto-san was an obscure, unknown yokai not included in any of the major yokai encyclopedias or collections. Now, the Honorable Mr. Footsteps is one of Japan’s most popular yokai, even ranking 5th place in a “What’s Your Favorite Yokai?” survey held across Japan. In Sakaiminato city (Mizuki Shigeru’s birthplace) there is a train station named “Betobeto-san,” and Betobeto-san was one of the few yokai to show up in the popular TV drama Gegege no Nyobo, a show that told the story of Mizuki Shigeru’s wife.
Much of Betobeto-san’s fame and popularity is attributed to Mizuki’s design. The large, friendly smiling mouth made the yokai an instant favorite amongst children. Tourists to Sakaiminato like to pose next to the Betobeto-san statue and try and imitate its mouth, and leave coins in its mouth for good luck. It just goes to show that, even in the case of yokai, a good character design can be more memorable than a good story.
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